Monday, March 21, 2011


This is about story telling and the future of music marketing. It’s about using the codes of deep mystery to stand out in the most crowded music environment possible: the Internet. But most importantly it’s about being a fan, and re-kindling that feeling of being part of the underground that could have disappeared long ago but will live on thanks to the mechanisms and tools of platforms like Tumblr.

There is a swath of the youngest members of Gen Y that love Tumblr. They’re extremely creative and have trouble seeing the difference between traditional disciplines like graphic design, photography, film, or music, in their own prolific creations or in that of others. Their love of the reblog and the like button is powering a new wave of artists with the same DIY, cross-discipline and cross-genre ethos.

The Internet is the world’s most crowded record store; it’s impossible to stand out. We’re on computers so profusely that it isn’t a big leap of the imagination to combine any two existing genres, and in fact this is almost cost of entry nowadays. Even a dubstep RnB singer may not stand out much longer. To reach these kids, you need to be a constant source of your own multi-platform narrative. There is no better forum for this than tumblr. Producing content is key, and the ability to tie a narrative together over video, music, and visuals will help your story get passed around by eager future art students.

But being merely proficient at CS3 and Final Cut Pro and taking influences from multiple sources will not get your free MP3 album on every blog in the universe. It takes a special sauce: mystery. A cryptic mythos. Secrets. Layers.

It started to become clear to me that this would be a key tool in the future of music marketing storytelling when MIA began seeding animated GIFs to promote her album and then went so far as to wrap her whole follow-up in Wikileaks-inspired symbology. Then came James Blake, who was an extremely obscure source of outsider-y electronic explorations until he came out of his shell and decided he wanted to be a pop star. Odd Future, of course, is the biggest and most successful example of leveraging a Tumblr shtick into a phenomenon. They simply will not tell anyone where Earl Sweatshirt, their best rapper, is, and the longer they wait the more irresistible the question becomes.

Enter the crypto-RnB group The Weeknd. No one knows who they are. All we know is they make pointedly stylish content across all the hippest digital channels and have an impeccably curated presence. Oh, and they make music so perfect for the Tumblr moment I almost think it was designed in a lab. Or in the office of a very savvy new media marketing agency.

But really it was just on some kid’s MacBook.

The Weeknd is a Master’s course in building an engaging presence for the cool kids. They created their own language, like Odd Future, both visual and verbal. The use of “XO” appears everywhere, but kinda means nothing. It’s just a symbol. A symbol for The Weeknd that can be used across platforms, across posts, across media. Next is the visual signs that whisper, "You’re seeing something created by The Weeknd": always black and white, women with faces obscured and a lot of balloons. These clues signal the band and its seeping out of Tumblr and into other platforms across the Web.

This is the language the band’s story is told in, and it’s crucial that every piece of the narrative unfold using this language or it will exist outside the universe they are creating for themselves, one with great mystery and therefore great appeal to jump in. Forget about the fact that the music is grounded in RnB but brilliantly blends elements of electronic music, ambient, dubstep, hip hop and indie rock. A lot of genius music goes unnoticed (and I may be leaning toward that descriptor for these guys soon). It's almost too good, like if pop mastermind The-Dream were a devious little hipster with the CD collection of the most discerning bespectacled music critic. The power here is in the grip these kids have on the complex, labyrinthine inner workings of the vast networks of the music scene online.

Kids like The Weeknd are creating multi-layered stories that make you want to jump in and stake your claim to (reblog, repost, like, love, download). One of the best parts of being in on the ground floor of the Odd Future story was that race to make your digital mark as soon as possible so you can brag to your friends later on that you were into them before they got big. This is why the impulse of “being underground”, the original bug that lead to the every music subculture since jazz, will not die on the Internet. Kids who get it better than you will always tear down everything that’s come before and create the coolest thing you’ve ever seen. Until the next Tumblr comes around.